Lift Every Voice and Sing
James standing; John seated.
By anyone’s standards, James Weldon Johnson led an extraordinary life: novelist, educator, attorney, diplomat, civil rights leader, and poet. His younger brother, John Rosamund Johnson was similarly accomplished: driving force in early 20th century Black music, composer, songwriter, pianist, soldier, singer, producer, and actor. These accomplishments alone would be enough to secure their places in history, but there is one that raises them above the norm. As young men, they created what is often referred to as the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.
James(1871-1938) and John(1873-1954) were born in Jacksonville, FL to parents who would have been considered middle class for the times. Their father was headwaiter at a hotel and their mother was a teacher at the segregated Stanton School. Mrs. Johnson encouraged her boys to pursue interests in literature and music. After completing their lower grade educations at the Stanton School, James went on to secondary school and college at Atlanta University, while John studied at the New England Conservatory. Each young man pursued interests in his own particular field that sometimes overlapped, never more so than when they collaborated on the now famous anthem.
After college, James returned home to the Stanton School where he rose to the position of principal and expanded the curriculum to include a high school. Not satisfied to simply build upon his mother’s legacy and remain in education, he studied law under the tutelage of a white attorney and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1898. For a time, he pursued a dual career as educator and lawyer. In his spare time, he wrote poetry.
By the end of the 19th century, John had spent time studying with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in London and had returned home to also join the faculty of the Stanton School where he taught music.
1900 was to prove a turning point for both men. It was in preparation for a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday that the idea for Lift Every Voice and Sing was born. The brothers determined to create an anthem that would express the longings and the hopes of their people. Once James had written the lyrics and John had set them to music, they taught the song to the children at the Stanton School. Its popularity quickly spread across the South.
With their success as collaborators, the duo moved to New York in 1901 where they became involved with Broadway musicals. James focused more on a writing career, while John established himself as a force in vaudeville as a composer and performer. More than 200 songs are credited to either John or to both brothers. John’s collaboration with Robert Cole produced two musicals, The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1907) and The Red Moon (1909).
During their time in New York James became involved in politics. He served as treasurer of the Colored Republican Club in 1904 and in 1906 was appointed by the Roosevelt Administration as US consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. He continued his consular career until 1913. During this period he anonymously published a novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. In 1916, James accepted a position with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where he rose to become Executive Secretary. During his time with the NAACP, he brought attention to the evils of racism, lynching, and segregation. In 1930, he accepted a position as teacher of creative writing with Fisk University and resigned from his NAACP duties. Through his writing, James became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
John continued composing and performing in New York until WWI
1935 cast Porgy and Bess
interrupted his Broadway career. Joining the army, he received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 15th Regiment. After the war, he returned to the stage and to composing. He toured with his own groups and sang the part of the lawyer as a member of the original 1935 production of Porgy and Bess.
As prominent as both James W. and John R. Johnson became in their chosen careers, they are best remembered by many for the anthem they produced as young men.
In James Weldon Johnson’s own words:
A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.
Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.
The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.
While not strictly historical fiction, these novels produced during the Harlem Renaissance are worth noting: Top 5 Harlem Renaissance Novels
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.
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